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“The black and the white – all want to hear the same tune.”

The words of DeFord Bailey (1899 –1982) will forever be immortalized in country music. An African-American harmonica player, DeFord was the first African-American to ever perform on the Grand Ole Opry, and one of the first people to be recorded in Music City, USA, also known as Nashville.

As he child, Bailey suffered from polio, and was bed-ridden for more than a year. Since the only parts of his body that would move were his hands and his head, he spent his time playing the harmonica. He learned to imitate the sounds around him, birds, cows, dogs and more. He was especially known for his imitation of trains. “Some people can play the train,” he once said, “but they can’t move like I do. Most of theirs sound like they’re running, but the sound is standing in one place too long. You can tell my train is moving. Every time I blow, you can tell I’m getting further. It’s moving out of sight as I blow. When I get about 115 miles an hour, I can feel it. My normal speed is 95 miles an hour. That don’t feel like I’m doing nothing, but my train sure enough moves along.”

Recently, EarthMatters Tennessee, a non-profit group helmed by Sizwe Herring and dedicated to organic growing methods, opened the DeFord Bailey Tribute Garden at the George W. Carver Food Park in Nashville. The garden features close to 300 roses – all named after famous songs such as “Ring of Fire” and “Tennessee Waltz”, and country stars including Dolly Parton, Amy Grant, Pam Tillis, and the newest addition, DeFord Bailey.

“All of my life, I’ve heard people talk about DeFord Bailey and the great contribution he has made to country music,” says Parton. “He was one of a kind, and his memory will live on forever. A tribute garden in his name is a wonderful idea, and I am so proud to have a Dolly Parton rose in his garden.”

Soon to be added to the collection will be flowers dedicated to Patsy Cline, Janice Wendell, and Brenda Lee. As Frankie Staton, “Urban Country Showcase” founder and 25-year music veteran, says, “This garden will serve as a harmonious place to be inspired while sitting among nature and reflecting on the lives of the people honored here – a place to come and be refreshed and inspired. ”

The DeFord Bailey Tribute Garden is part of an effort throughout Nashville to pay a much overdue honor to this influential artist. “We can’t care about what we don’t know about it,” said country singer Pam Tillis at the opening day ceremony. “And it’s so important to know about the firsts that DeFord was involved with – the first recording session in Nashville, he sang the first song on the Grand Ole Opry. He is such a part of history it’s unbelievable, and more people need to know the DeFord Bailey legacy. It’s so important, and this garden is certainly a step in that direction.”

The garden is on display to the public, and is usually open on Saturday from 10-1. For more information, call 615.252.6953 or log on to or














 / Issue 73 - September 2018
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